I didn’t pay a whole lot attention to this tv series when it originally aired in 1990 but I just went back and saw both seasons since they became available on Amazon Prime.
Twin Peaks, at its core, is about the weird goings on of the inhabitants of a small town and how initial appearances are usually not as they seem. Everybody has their own secrets and schemes and things tend to just get more complicated over time instead of getting neatly resolved. On the more immediate surface, the series revolves around the murder of the high school homecoming queen, Laura Palmer. This plot motivator kicks off the pilot and is vital to the series because it provides a mechanism to affect all the characters and bring them together. It also carries the theme of hidden secrets, as the well liked girl isn’t as innocent as everyone believes.
When Twin Peaks works, it beautifully creates a creepy atmosphere and features eclectic characters in interesting situations. What else would one expect from David Lynch? The protagonist, Agent Cooper, is a vastly likable combination of dysfunctional yet able. The small town and mystery exude a unique aura that really stood out among other tv offerings at the time. These differences and the water cooler effect really drove audiences to watch in the beginning but the luster started to wear off when people realized how weakly some of it was planned.
This is because Twin Peaks is a soap opera, but of course, that is the point. The first season goes as far as to feature scenes of characters watching a soap opera that often mimics the events they are experiencing. After time, it becomes difficult to separate the execution from parody. While the murder of Laura Palmer is the big event that kick starts everything, the series loses focus and characters begin to lack reasons for existing. It is hard to fault a show for so completely living up to its pulp premise but that truth shows how deeply flawed the idea of Twin Peaks really is.
In many ways, audiences weren’t really ready for this series. What begins as a mundane murder mystery strays into the occult with opaque clues, unsettling dream sequences, and evil spirits. Still, a lot of this subversion is what makes Twin Peaks so groundbreaking. Some of the most memorable images from the series are rooted in mysticism (a simple Google Images search will prove that much). This doesn’t mean that the show is perfect in retrospect. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to create a list of grievances.
For one, mysteries often fail to deliver on their promises. It’s easy to make a bunch of weird shit happen to create a spooky atmosphere but when it comes time to explain all that stuff, well, the writers just shrug and hope no one notices. It’s like the sea monster in Lost. So while Twin Peaks *does* ultimately deliver on revealing the murderer of Laura Palmer, and while I actually thought they did a good job with those episodes, so much else in the show seems invented immediately before filming just to give the actors on set something to do. This is especially true in the second season where characters sometimes have motivations inconsistent with prior events. The creators have admitted that they were just winging it with plot points and David Lynch never even intended to solve the Laura Palmer case- he just wanted that to be a lynchpin that starts the series off and then have the show devolve into the soap opera of the lives of the small town inhabitants.
Also, while resolving the mystery of Laura Palmer worked for me, the writers of the show had no idea what to do afterward. As mentioned, the seemingly random plots that occur were always the direction the show was intended to go, but it really didn’t work. While the creators have said that solving the murder let some wind out of their sails and audiences were no longer interested, the truth is that audiences needed more coherent major story arcs to hold things together. The campy soap opera worked while there was an underlying drive to force character interactions – the death of Laura Palmer was the single lynchpin that connected everyone. In the second season, when Twin Peaks starts conjuring random unrelated situations for people to deal with, the reasons for characters to get together feels plainly contrived. And with motivations and situations changing every episode, there was no reason to maintain interest.
It’s hard to recommend this series unless you are a big fan of camp. Past that, if you can appreciate the meandering nature of the wandering plot, then perhaps there is a cult classic waiting for you. Twin Peaks certainly leaves a strong impression and has had a lasting influence on television drama- that alone should be enough reason to check it out. Personally, I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, but the flaws keep the series from achieving true greatness.